Colin McRae (1968-2007): Gameography

Colin McRae

Racing fans worldwide are mourning the loss of World Rally Championship driver Colin McRae, his son Johnny and two others in a tragic helicopter crash Saturday about a mile from the family home in Jerviswood, Lanarkshire in Scotland. While McRae, and rally in general were better known outside the US, his dynamically risky racing style helped his name became synonymous with one of the best specified racing franchises, Codemasters’ Colin McRae Rally series. More recently, appearances in the last two X-Games here along with the release of the sixth (and most successful) McRae racer, DiRT helped broaden his US his fan base while making him a household name in the process. I’ll leave it to those who better know his full career to do the proper retrospective on that end – I’m here to write up a brief summary of his appearances in console and handheld game form.

I was first introduced to Colin McRae Rally back in 1999 when I was working at the infamous independent game shop, Multimedia 1.0 on New York City’s semi-seedy St. Marks Place. One of our regular customers was a UK transplant who was an avid F1and rally fanatic. After hearing him endlessly berate store fave Rally Cross while raving about the PAL version of McRae (released in the UK in July 1998), we eventually imported the Japanese version when it was released in March 1999 and were completely blown away. While not visually spectacular by any means, the wicked speed, slippery yet intuitive controls and optional inside the car viewpoint made previous “rally” racers seem almost primitive by comparison . Interestingly enough, the Japanese publisher, Sammy, left all of the English menus intact, making the game a favorite recommendation to customers looking for an import that was easy to get into without struggling through pages of Kanji.

Sony Computer Entertainment wisely (and surprisingly, considering Gran Turismo 2 had limited rally racing portions) picked up the publishing rights to the game, releasing it in January of 2000 to mostly positive reviews. A few of our regulars didn’t quite “get” the game’s focus on a single car racing balls out against a ticking clock, but those who tried the game out were definitely satisfied. We had not a single return on the game and it was one of those titles people would come in to look for when the bigger chain shops were out of stock. Codemasters took the complaints about the first game to heart and in June 2000, European gamers got the much improved Colin McRae Rally 2.0, a massive improvement over the original. A new graphics engine and a simple yet highly creative menu system showed off some truly skilled PlayStation programming at work. The game still stands out as one of the best racers on the console and some fans consider it the best rally game on the system. 2.0 also featured over 90 tracks, a new Arcade mode (appealing to those who wanted to see more cars on the courses) and enhanced multiplayer modes that allowed up to eight players to take turns in a series of tough races

Codemasters published the second game themselves in America in December 0f 2000, probably breaking some sort of record for having two games in a niche franchise come out in less than a year stateside. The game reviewed even better than the first one, but it seemed to be produced in smaller quantities, as every distributor we dealt with never seemed to have enough copies of the game to go around. Then again, this could have been because the game was doing much better than the previous one. Meanwhile, both McRae and his younger brother Alister appeared in another rally game in 2000, Infogrames’ Michelin Rally Masters. This one was less visually appealing and control-wise, things were a bit weaker overall, but since I was hooked on discovering different games in the sub-genre, it certainly got played until completion a few times.

Other than 2002’s excellent Game Boy Advance release, Colin McRae Rally 2.0 there wasn’t a new McRae game until 2003. In March 2002, publisher bam! Entertainment sent Evolution Studios’ WRC: World Rally Championship sliding into retailers to excellent reviews, but the limited printing (and lousy cover “art”) of that game kept it from becoming the hit it should have been. Amusingly enough (and most likely due to licensing restrictions) a version of Colin (wearing a fireproof mask over his face) makes an appearance in WRC as “Ford Driver,” complete with Ford Focus and co-driver Nicky Grist aboard for the ride. Needless to say, that game kept me impressed until the next McRae reached stores. In February 2003, Colin McRae Rally 3 hit PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox formats to rave reviews. The two new “next-gen” consoles allowed Codemasters to go all out, creating an amazing game engine that showed off dynamic real time damage, stunning weather effects and gameplay that wowed most and infuriated others.

Some die-hard rally fans looking for a true simulation criticized two aspects of the game, one being the fact that you could only play as Colin in Championship mode. Not that that wasn’t a desirable position to be in, mind you; it probably just felt a bit limited to gamers more used to “create-a-player” features in other games. The other point of conflict to these purists was the handling, particularly the tendency of cars to drive as if they pivoted on a central axis. However, with a good wheel instead of a control pad and with the inside the car view in full effect, the driving experience was quite outstanding overall. While both versions of the game received solid reviews, Codemasters decided that the US market could only support one version of its signature racing franchise. Microsoft was the lucky winner for the next two installments, but PS2 owners weren’t left out in the cold for great racers. The new Pro Race Driver series, an evolution of the old ToCA (Touring Cars) series made it to both consoles and PC, adding the term “CarPG” to the gaming lexicon.

There had been a few other rally games released in the US that tried to capture different aspects of the sport, most notably Microsoft’s Rallisport Challenge and its sequel. A few other, more arcade-like rally games came and went as well, but there was nothing like the feeling of a McRae game. Hitting the edge of no control while whipping your car through a hairpin, barely missing some trees couldn’t be beat. For my money Another edge the series had over racers such as the Gran Turismo series was the level of car damage that could be accrued during races. While GT always thrived on its ‘beauty pack’ presentation, the lack of any sort of damage model made watching someone play a bit too boring at times. At least if you had a bad race in a McRae game, you and anyone in the room would both see and feel it. Even the most flawless races left your car dirty and dinged from bumps and jumps in the road surface.

Surprisingly, Colin McRae Rally 04 reached stores in March of 2004 as a budget title, but that twenty dollars got you one of the best racing games on the planet. Featuring even more improved graphics, gameplay, and a better structured Championship mode, this one still sits in my play stack whenever I need a break from the daily grind. The only element lacking was proper Xbox Live support although the game did have an online scoreboard function where you could post your best times. As fantastic as this latest installment was, it would paradoxically seem that the low price point turned off too many US gamers who automatically associate a higher price point with ‘quality.’ Codemasters eventually shipped ToCA Race Driver 2 in two formats: with and without CMR 04 as a bonus disc. Of course, the dev team was toiling away on what was to be the final game in the series on the soon to be ‘obsolete’ Xbox, and man, if they didn’t finish on a high note.

Before that final installment hit home consoles, the franchise took a quick detour to Nokia’s unfairly maligned N-Gage deck in the form of Colin McRae Rally 2005. One of the best reasons to own the unique cell phone/game system, those who picked the game up were well rewarded with excellent PlayStation quality visuals and the highly challenging gameplay the series was known for. While we missed out on the splendid PSP title Colin McRae Rally 2005 Plus, lucky UK gamers got their hands on it in September 2005. US gamers got an excellent Xbox version of the game that same month complete with innovative Xbox Live multiplayer rallies, even better graphics and the new ability to drive any car on any track. As much as this game raised the bar for the series, the lack of any way to save replays (the one negative aspect that’s dogged the franchise in my opinion) was still an issue to some players. I can recall once leaving my Xbox running for a few hours looping a particular replay just so I could show a friend of mine one particularly wild race completed on two wheels.

When the first images of the new ‘next-gen’ Colin McRae game appeared, it was clear that Codemasters was creating something truly remarkable and the final version of DiRT on the Xbox 360 (and headed to the Playstation 3 this week) doesn’t disappoint much. Not only is the game blazingly fast and gorgeous to look at, the level of difficulty is such that even longtime fans will need to adjust their reflexes a bit. Initially, I wasn’t too crazy about having Travis Pastrana aboard as the bait for newbies and the X Games crowd looking for some sort of ‘cool factor,’ but it’s hard to dislike Travis at all once you see him in person. Besides, his raw enthusiasm and willingness to put 110% into whatever he does just may make him a worthy successor to McRae, should Codemasters decide to pass the virtual torch and create future games in the series. Sadly, UK rally fans also lost another circuit star back in 2005 when Richard Burns passed away from a brain tumor. The thrilling, highly technical 2004 racer, Richard Burns Rally never reached retail in the US, although publishing rights had been picked up by Ignition Entertainment.

For the record, I didn’t touch on the PC versions of the McRae series simply because I’ve only played two of them and improved visuals aside, I prefer sitting on my couch a few feet away from the screen as opposed to sitting too close to a monitor. I do enough of that when I’m writing, thank you very much. In closing, it’s safe to say while US gamers really didn’t get the chance to appreciate Colin McRae’s talents anywhere as much as fans who follow rally religiously, the world is a less fun place without him in it. If you’ve never played a McRae game previously, definitely open yourself up to a new experience and give one or more of these titles listed here a try in his memory.

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